The summer months are fast approaching, and you know what that means: trips to the pool, backyard barbecues and numerous outdoor activities.
While you don’t need to forgo the summer fun, it’s important to make sure you’re using the proper techniques to protect your skin against sun damage. According to dermatology experts, one of the ways you can do that is by selecting the right type of sunscreen.
“There are really only a few key pieces of information consumers need to look for,” says Dawn Holman, a behavioral scientist in the Centers for Disease Control’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Control. “First, make sure the sunscreen has an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 15. Generally speaking, the higher the SPF, the more protection the sunscreen will provide.”
Secondly, Holman says a sunscreen must be labeled “broad spectrum” in order to protect your skin against both UVA and UVB rays, which are the two main types of radiation that human skin is exposed to from the sun.
“If it doesn’t say broad spectrum on there, you really don’t know how much protection you’re getting from UVA rays,” Holman says. SPF is specific to protection against UVB rays only, Holman says.
The third consideration people should have when buying sunscreen is whether or not it’s water resistant, Holman says.
“In certain scenarios, like if you’re at the pool or the beach where you’re going to be in and out of the water, or let’s say you’re going for a run outside and you know you’ll be sweating,” Holman says, “those are times where it might be helpful to have a water resistant sunscreen because it probably won’t wear off as quickly as ones without that label might.”
According to Anisha B. Patel, a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology and Assistant Professor of Dermatology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, it’s important to keep in mind the time limit on water resistant sunscreens. “Water resistant means 40 minutes; very water resistant means 80 minutes,” Patel says. “Waterproof and sweat proof — those are things that do not exist (when it comes to sunscreen).”
While normally you should reapply your sunscreen every two hours, time spent in the water means it needs to happen more often — every 40 to 80 minutes depending on the sunscreen’s water resistance level.
Patel says there are two different types of sunscreen: chemical and physical. People often have a preference between the two types based on what works best with their skin.
“When I have patients who are on medications that might make them more sensitive to UV light, I usually recommend physical blocker sunscreens,” Patel says. “Those are the ones that have titanium or zinc in them and tend to be hypoallergenic and better at blocking the full broad spectrum.”
While physical sunscreens reflect and scatter UV rays, chemical sunscreens contain organic, carbon-based compounds that work by converting UV rays into heat and then releasing that heat from your skin. Patel says people can choose between either, based on what works best for their skin.
Patel, however, says she uses a more combined approach to protect against the sun’s harmful rays.
“I use UV protectant clothing,” she says. “Living in Texas, we sweat. It’s way easier to have (UV protectant) clothing on than to have to worry about reapplying sunscreen to sweaty skin.” She says she often advises her patients to wear a broad-rimmed hat, long sleeves and pants when in direct sunlight.
“One of the misconceptions when we think about sun safety is we immediately think about sunscreen, but it’s intended to be used with other forms of sun protection,” Holman says. She suggests people cover as much skin as possible, including their ears and the back of the neck, and, once outside, stay in the shade as much as possible. Holman even says rethinking the timing of outdoor activities is important, so that people avoid being outside midday when the sun is most intense.
People with fair or sensitive skin or who are more prone to sunburn should be using a sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher, Holman and Patel say. There is really no evidence that shows an added benefit of wearing anything higher than 60 SPF, Holman says.
“The latest research is showing that there is a little bit of additional benefit up until SPF 60, but after that, we don’t really have any indication that you’re getting much added benefit,” Holman says.
According to a report from the Surgeon General published by the CDC, skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the
United States and ultraviolet exposure is a major cause — but it is preventable.
The main thing that will help prevent skin cancer is remembering to use sunscreen on a daily basis and reapply frequently when out in direct sunlight for longer periods of time, Patel and Holman say.
Also, having darker skin or tanning easily doesn’t mean you’re free from harm, Holman says.
“No one is immune to skin cancer,” Holman says. “Obviously people with lighter skin tones are at a higher risk, but when we look at our national data on skin cancer diagnosis — particularly melanoma diagnosis — we see it in all races and ethnicities and skin types.”
There’s also no such thing as a healthy tan, Holman says.
“It’s a sign of harm that’s been done to your skin,” she says. “That’s why we’re encouraging people to not only avoid sunburn but in general protect their skin and to avoid any changes in skin color if possible.”
The CDC is in its second year of an initiative called the #SunSafeSelfie, which encourages people to share photos of themselves and others on social media demonstrating the ways in which they’re using sun protection outdoors. Holman says the more images on social media of people showing how they make sun safety work for them, the better.
“There’s very clear evidence that when used regularly with other forms of sun protection, sunscreen lowers your chances of skin cancer,” Holman says. “From my perspective, as someone who does research on cancer risk and how to reduce your risk, the best thing you can do for your skin is regularly protecting it from skin damage.”